Monday, October 18, 2010

Subjective Prohibitions

When arguing against subjectivism (i.e. desire-based accounts of normative reasons) Parfit puts a lot of weight on the theory's failure to accommodate the datum that everyone has reason to avoid agony: agony-indifferent agents are making a mistake, according to Parfit, whether or not they would admit this upon reflection. I find this pretty persuasive, but I think the argument is more ambitious than it really needs to be, as in its current form it would seem to target nihilists as well as subjectivists. A more modest, and hence even more persuasive, argument against subjectivism would instead focus on the positive normative claims entailed by subjectivism.

For example, imagine Bob is wondering whether or not to torture a puppy. He knows all the relevant facts, which include the following: the puppy would suffer extreme pain, Bob himself would feel nauseous and subsequently loathe himself for so acting, and all else is equal. I take the following to be an obvious truth: it would not be contrary to reason for Bob to refrain from torturing the puppy.

But desire-based views cannot secure this datum. For we may suppose that, no matter his feelings about the matter, Bob has an iron-willed determination to torture puppies. Upon reflection, he endorses torture as an end in itself, as indeed his supreme goal (or desire) that overrides all others, including his future happiness. Desire-based theories therefore imply that Bob ought to torture the puppy, and has decisive reason not to refrain from doing so.

This result is clearly absurd. One might reasonably be a nihilist, and deny that there are any normative properties at all. But if you're going to play the normative game, you cannot plausibly hold that what Bob really ought to do in this case is to torture the puppy (ruining his own life in the process). His iron-willed determination to follow through on his inexplicable and perverse desire is not properly described as the epitomy of reason and good sense. If normatively assessable at all, it is surely just insane.


  1. Is a determination to do something a desire? Not necessarily, since we often do things we don't desire to do. So are you maybe equivocating when you move from "iron willed determination" to "supreme goal (desire)"?

    Also, why make your situation so strong? I mean why make the dude's supreme goal to torture puppies? Do you think your argument doesn't work if you take it down a few notches and torturing puppies is only one of many of his goals?

  2. I'm worried that like Parfit you are running a simplistic version of desire-based theories. I think it would be fair to take the best possible theory - something like Mark Schroeder's view from the Slaves of Passions. You could then ask does Mark's theory have the awkward consequences which Parfit and you seem to ascribe to all desire-based views.

    I'm slightly sceptical about this. Mark's view would give Bob both a reason to torture the puppy (this would satisfy his desire to torture puppies) and a reason to refrain from doing so (this would satisfy his desire not to feel nauseous and to loathe himself).

    Now, the question is of course what does Mark's view tell us about the strongest reasons Bob has. At least, he rejects the proportionality between the strengths of reasons and the strength/basicness of desires on which your argument seems to be premised. The account Mark gives of the strength of reasons is very complicated (sometimes I wonder if even understand it) and there are many worries about it (including whether it still is a desire-based account). In any case, in criticising desire-based views it would be good to check what comes out of that theory before drawing any hasty conclusions.

  3. Jussi - thanks, I'll have to look into the details of Schroeder's view. Though couldn't we just construct the case so that the agent doesn't have any such desire "not to feel nauseous [or] to loathe himself"?

    Camus Dude - 'desire' here is used in the broad philosophical sense of motivational state -- the sort of thing that, combined with one's means-end beliefs, issues in action. On your other question, adding competing goals would needlessly muddy the example.

  4. We could. But, on Mark's view, Bob would still probably have a reason not to torture the puppy. Bob only needs to have any desire whatsoever such that not torturing the puppy will make it more likely that that desire is satisfied. The content of this desire can be completely unrelated to the act of torturing puppies as such. Given that Bob probably has a very large number of desires, we probably can the required desire (we can even find reasons to eat cars given that all of us need a bit of iron...).

    So, we won't probably get too few reasons unless we go to really far-fetched possibilities and bizarre desire-sets. The question is however can we get the weights right. If the strength of the reasons depends on the weights of our desires, we won't. But, Schroeder's view does try to deal with this issue.


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